Among the stately white stone palaces lining the National Mall, this Smithsonian branch really stands out: A burnt sand-colored exterior of kasota limestone wraps around undulating walls, echoing the pueblos and hogans of the Southwest tribes. With its bands of reflective windows peering out like eagle eyes, it reminds me of some sort of Northwest tribal totem. Inside, a huge rotunda lobby is filled with celestial references, from the equinoxes and solstices mapped on the floor to the sky visible in the oculus dome, 120 feet overhead, and nature is brought in throughout the galleries -- wonderfully appropriate for a museum celebrating Native peoples.
As one of the Smithsonian's newest branches, the American Indian museum shakes off the dusty approaches of the past, and has so much more than just exhibits in glass cases. Of course, it has an amazing number of artifacts to display, with its core collection of 800,000 Native American artifacts -- wood and stone carvings, masks, pottery, feather bonnets, and so on, representing some 1,000 Native communities through North and South America. Children can be lost for minutes studying some of these intricate handmade objects. While there are many fine museums showcasing one tribal group or another, this one includes all the native populations of the Western Hemisphere, and many of the exhibits are organized around cross-cultural themes. (Never before had I noticed so many connections between North and South American tribes.)
The museum's designers also purposely made this a "living" museum, with Native peoples performing, storytelling, and displaying their own art alongside the historic exhibits -- that fabulous atrium entrance turns out to be perfect for ceremonial dances. Workshops include demonstrations of traditional arts such as weaving or basket making; a roster of films includes a number of animated shorts that retell nature legends and creation myths. Almost every exhibit, it seems, has a video of some tribe member explaining the significance of this or that custom -- a much easier way for kids to learn than reading blocks of text mounted on a wall. Again, how appropriate for a Native American museum to honor oral tradition.
Some of the exhibit themes are a bit too anthropological, or too politically complex, for children to follow, but just looking at the precious objects can be enough. A pair of traditional beaded moccasins alongside red high-top sneakers hand-painted with tribal motifs -- that's the sort of thing kids intuitively get.
Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National, 5 miles. Washington Dulles International, 26 miles. Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, 30 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Embassy Suites, 1250 22nd St. NW (tel. 800/EMBASSY [362-2779] or 202/857-3388; www.embassysuites.com). $$ Georgetown Suites, 1000 29th St. NW & 1111 30th St. NW, Georgetown (tel. 800/348-7203 or 202/298-7800; www.georgetownsuites.com).